Cruising Predictions About Testing, Destinations, Health Bubbles and the Permanence of Protocols

Independence of the Seas in Laderbee Haiti 

It should come as no surprise that the main topic on everyone’s mind during this year’s Seatrade Cruise Virtual industry convention was COVID-19, with a particular focus on restarting operations. Despite such daunting challenges, the cruise travel market is the most optimistic it has been since shutting down sailings.

Among the takeaways were the following key points.

Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three

More than anything, testing for the novel coronavirus was presented as the most important step for cruising’s eventual return — specifically, the 100% testing of all passengers and crew before boarding any ship as outlined by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

In fact, Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises, believes testing effectively makes vaccines “irrelevant” as tests will help weed out any instances of COVID-19 regardless of who has or who has not been inoculated.

Another common belief is that while testing is a crucial “first gate,” as stated by Dr. Grant Tarling, chief medical officer, Group Health Services at Carnival Corporation, it is still possible that the virus could make its way onboard. Thus, multiple layers of protection including masking and physical distancing, as well as case isolation as needed, will be implemented.

Protocols Not Permanent

It is also good to remember that the strictest health protocols will not be in place forever. Donnie Brown, vice president of maritime policy at CLIA, anticipates stringent measures to exist at the “initial resumption” but looks forward “to being able to scale them back in time.”

He said what will contribute to the eventual loosening of protocols is a combination of easing restrictions on terrestrial travel; the availability of treatments and vaccines; and the remaining prevalence of COVID-19 in source markets and destinations.

Next Up: The Caribbean

Trunk Bay in St. Johns

The Caribbean is expected to be one of the first destinations to return for North American travellers, who can look forward to a gradual phasing in of ports, not all of which will likely be available on initial itineraries.

Holland America Line’s new president Gus Antorcha emphasized that cruise lines’ own private islands will come into play more to start, but traditional destinations are not out of the running.

Even if there are more restrictions, to begin with, sanctioned shore excursions are not necessarily a bad thing. Josh Leibowitz, president of Seabourn, pointed out that the cruise industry actually started out with “controlled” tours.

Ultimately, “pleasure should not be restricted,” said Clarice Modeste-Curwen, minister for tourism and civil aviation, Grenada Tourism Authority, but the region is rethinking attractions as needed, as well as avoiding mass gatherings with smaller groups. She specifically cited beaches and health-focused tours as good offerings.

It will come down to instilling traveller confidence in destinations and building mutual trust between ports and cruise lines, and those discussions are well underway.

Alaska’s Health Bubble

Both Holland America Line (HAL) and Windstar Cruises have specifically said they are planning for full 2021 Alaska seasons.

Equally anticipating next year’s return are Alaska’s individual ports of call. Skagway, for one, depends on cruising for a staggering 90% of its local economy, according to Andrew Cremata, borough mayor of Skagway.

“We want [guests] to have a completely free experience while they’re in the port,” he said.

Cremata discussed how a health bubble can be created on a ship, but also in a small destination such as Skagway, where visitors can still openly wander beyond shore excursions to hike, shop or dine. Crucial to that will be routinely testing seasonal workers so the local bubble and incoming bubble can safely interact.

Demand and Demographics Remain Steady

Also positive is the news that traveller demand remains high. Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, spoke of the emerging trend of “revenge travel,” and the huge desire there is to get back out there, particularly among those who have cruised before. She said cruising is already their preferred vacation, and they miss cruising with friends.

HAL’s Antorcha does not see demographics shifting either. Those who “took travel for granted,” are raring to go, and, perhaps surprisingly, older guests are disproportionately booking cruises right now, he said.

Similarly, MSC’s Sasso believes loyalists will return. First-timers “may have been moved a little bit away from the fence,” he said, but there’s an opportunity to capture a new audience that appreciates all the robust steps the cruise industry is taking to ensure the healthiest of environments.

Travel Advisors Are Key

“Coming out of this, [travel agents] will never be in greater demand,” said Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network.

Sadly, Sharpe does foresee a smaller community that is “leaner and meaner,” but also one that has a chance to quickly grow back as consumers need help understanding everything. The additional silver lining, he added, is the potential for greater revenue per advisor with fewer in the market.

To that end, Dan Blanchard, owner and CEO of UnCruise Adventures — who said “God bless agents” — remains very thankful for advisors’ continued support and advised them to become as knowledgeable as possible about all the new protocols to keep their edge moving forward.

MSC Cruises USA Furloughs 128 Staff

Dawn with MSC Poesia in the background.

According to a filing with the state of Florida, MSC Cruises USA has furloughed 128 employees, citing the COVID-19 crisis.

The furloughs include 55 cruise consultants, 10 home-based cruise consultants, five contact centre supervisors, eight group advocates and various other titles.

The company has its U.S. headquarters in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and said it hopes the furloughs are temporary.

MSC has four ships based in the United States with aspirations to grow. The Seaside, Armonia, Divina and Meraviglia serve the U.S. market.

MSC Cruises’ Two New “Seaside” Vessels

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It’s hard to believe that a decade ago, the MSC Cruises fleet was only made up of a handful of ships, most of which were second-hand tonnage. Now, the line has just announced a deal with Italian shipyard Fincantieri for two brand-new ships to join the popular cruise line’s current fleet of 12 modern megaships. What a difference a decade makes.

MSC's new "Seaside" class of cruise ships will debut in 2017-2018. Rendering courtesy of MSC Cruises.
MSC’s new ‘Seaside’ class of cruise ships will debut in 2017-2018. Rendering courtesy of MSC Cruises.

Dubbed Seaside, these two ships will be the largest vessels ever constructed by Fincantieri, and the largest to ever sail for MSC. Purpose-built to cruise the Mediterranean, Caribbean and South America, each vessel will be 1,060 feet in length, with a width of 135 feet. Towering 230 feet in height, they will carry up to 5,300 passengers along with a crew of 1,413. The new vessels will have a total gross tonnage of 154,000.

For MSC Cruises, it’s a special moment. The company says the two ships represent the last piece of its plan to double the capacity of its fleet by 2022. With the arrival of the new ships MSC Cruises will reach a capacity of about 80,000 passengers a day.

The €700 million vessels will boast sea-level promenades that will circumnavigate the sides of the ships with outdoor deck spaces, shops and restaurants. They will also combine the best features of MSC’s previous vessels, including the highly-popular MSC Yacht Club, along with new technology that allows for greater efficiency including reduced fuel consumption and advanced safety systems that the company says go “beyond what is required by international regulations.”

In addition, both ships will feature expanded deck space and panoramic glass elevators.

Below the MSC Video of Both Classes; Seaside and Vista Class

 MSC Two New Ship Classes Seaside and Vista

Both ships are as-yet-unnamed. The first Seaside-class ship will debut in November of 2017, with MSC taking delivery of the second in May, 2018. MSC also holds the option for a third Seaside-class vessel with Fincantieri that could be exercised if the company wishes.